Weekend Project: V-Brake Conversion

When you ride disc brakes exclusively for five months, returning to cantilever brakes can be a real eye opener.  The difference in power and modulation became immediately apparent to me when I tried slowing my canti-equipped SOMA Saga with hands that had become used to the Avid BB7s on my Salsa Vaya.

Truth be told, I have never been completely enamored of my commuter’s cantilevers.  I’ve experimented with various aftermarket brake pads, straddle cable positions, and cable housing, but the improvements were always minimal.  Since disc brakes were not an option for the Saga, I figured it was time to give v-brakes a try.

Now, this is not the first time I’ve converting one of my bikes over to v-brakes.  In 1996, I made the switch from expensive CNC-machined cantilevers to Shimano’s mass produced v-brakes.  Shimano’s claims of increased power and improved control obvious the first time I rode those new brakes.

Converting the commuter to v-brakes should be a no-brainer, right?  Well, yes and no.  V-brakes require more cable pull than canti’s, which means you generally can’t use just any drop-bar brake lever.  Using shorter, mini v-brake calipers allow the use of STI/Ergo-style levers, but the mini-v’s often lack the clearance for fat tires and full-sized fenders (which is exactly how my commuter is equipped).  I was willing to bite the bullet and switch to dedicated linear-pull levers, but selecting the correct length brake arms left me a bit puzzled.

A bit of googling revealed a thread on Road Bike Review that included measurements for more than a dozen models of v-brakes.  I measured the distance necessary for fender clearance (95mm), and found four compatible models.  Since I wanted to match the rest of the bike’s silver components, I went with the Tektro 930AL.

After I had amassed the necessary bits and pieces, I began the task of removing the current brakes and levers, and installing the new components.  Once again, I was pleasantly reminded of just how easy installation and setup was with v-brakes (wrapping the bars took longer than adjusting the brakes).

Was the conversion worth it?  Yes.  The v-brakes have more power, better modulation, and require a lighter touch than the cantilevers they replaced (and that’s with the v’s stock pads).  After only a few short rides, it’s obvious why so many cyclocross bikes now come with mini-v’s instead of cantilevers (my commute includes 5-6 miles of dirt trails).  The combination of direct-pull levers and the 95mm arms allows for plenty of rim clearance, and the brakes can be easily released for wheel removal.

Since modern drop-bar levers don’t have built-in cable adjusters, you need to run an inline adjuster (or swap the stock noodle for one with an adjuster).  Also, don’t skimp when it comes cable housing.  Reinforced housing such as Jagwire’s Ripcord will improve braking feel at the lever (which is true for any style brake).  V-brakes can produce lots of leverage, and that leverage may “overpower” thin-walled or small diameter forks or seat stays.  If you’re considering converting such a frame/fork to v-brakes, you may want to stick with cantilevers, or at least add a booster plate to reduce flex.

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